By Frank Whitman
Monitoring illegal immigration on Guam has become primarily a matter of national security rather than one of human trafficking, labor abuses or smuggling as in years past. That was the message to University of Guam criminal justice students from a panel of government officials during an April 20 forum titled "Guam’s Illegal Immigration Issue: Addressing Immigration Crimes as a U.S. Territory.”
Panelists pointed out that Guam underwent another wave of illegal immigration in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the reasons were seen as economic rather than sinister.
“Geopolitically, we’re in a whole different situation now with this ominous threat of China,” said Sen. Chris Barnett, a panel member and chairperson of the 37th Guam Legislature’s committee on public safety. “When I talk to Customs officers, that’s one of the things that they mention, that they believe that some of this illegal immigration might be posing a security threat.”
The immigration discussion should be “not so much about going to seek a better life, and there is some of that going on, but I think the bigger question is: Are we in danger from this wave of illegal immigration?” Barnett said.
Another panel member, Chief Stephen Ignacio of the Guam Police Department, recounted a couple of examples of suspicious behavior.
“There’s a ranch up in Yigo that is being farmed by Chinese (people), … but, it has a perfect view of Andersen (Air Force Base facilities),” he said. “Many years ago, we caught some people of Asian descent early in the morning over on Route 17 taking pictures from a vantage point of some of the Apra Harbor naval facilities.”
The Air Force is installing a radar system to monitor vessels coming to shore in the Andersen area—Ritidian Point, Tarague Beach and nearby. “At Andersen, there are a lot of assets to protect,” Ignacio said.
Among the problems law enforcement officials have encountered in trying to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to Guam is the lack of a law clearly prohibiting immigration. Current law is contradictory, Ignacio said. Immigrants may come to Guam by plane only with proper documentation, but courts have ruled that coming into Guam from the Northern Marianas by sea is like traveling between states—no documentation is needed.
“In one respect, it’s illegal; you can’t get on a plane and come to Guam,” he said. “But in the second respect, this court ruling says that if you came by boat, it’s a legal incursion to Guam.”
Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio, who was also one of the panelists, said he thinks most of the resources that U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been using have been dedicated to the southern border of the United States where, interestingly, Guam National Guardsmen have been deployed to enforce immigration law.
“Guam didn’t seem to be a priority until the Department of Defense got interested,” Tenorio said.
A large part of the problem is the difference in political status between the Northern Marianas and Guam. Panelists said the federal government should play a larger role by improving policy and providing more resources – and, in a larger sense, resolving the political status issue.
“We’re in purgatory too with our political status,” Tenorio said. “It’s primarily because of our political status, or lack of it, that we can’t deal with a lot of these immigration issues.”
Ignacio said a stricter policy would be most helpful. “At the end of the day, the job of the Guam Police Department is to work with Customs and Quarantine and collaborate with federal and local partners to enforce those laws that can be legally enforced,” he said. “Our challenge is not so much equipment and manpower, it’s having laws that we can legally enforce to detain these people.”
In August 2022, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero formed a task force to address the influx of illegal immigrants. It includes the Guam Customs and Quarantine Agency, Guam Department of Agriculture, Guam Department of Labor, Guam Fire Department, Guam Homeland Security, the Guam Police Department, Homeland Security Investigations, the Office of the Attorney General, and Port Authority of Guam.
Guam and CNMI authorities are collaborating to apprehend immigrants once they land in Guam. “A couple of months ago, when there was an uptick in these illegal immigrants coming over via boat from the CNMI to Guam, there was a lot of collaboration with the CNMI public safety group,” Ignacio said. “It came to the point where they would actually tell us, ‘This boat’s leaving Rota’ or ‘This boat’s leaving Saipan.’” Authorities were then able to intercept the boats when they landed on Guam.
An indicator of the success of that collaboration is the dozen or so boats that are impounded near the Customs facility in Tiyan. Many of the boats feature “brand new” engines, he said, indicating significant investment.
Ignacio said he recently met with the new director of public safety in Saipan and feels confident the collaboration will continue as long as illegal immigration is a problem.
A looming immigration problem is the foreign workers in Saipan, Tenorio said. Hundreds of holders of the CNMI-only transitional worker (CW) visas have been essentially stranded in Saipan since the garment factories owned by often unscrupulous foreign corporations closed in the mid-2000s, he said.
The expiration date of the CW visas was recently extended to 2029.
“I think we need to keep an eye on the CW program, allow federal authorities and the Northern Marianas government to vet all the people that are up there, find a pathway for the folks that are here that have legitimate reasons, but also work together to pressure the federal government to help them clean that up so that we here in Guam are going to be protected from any of the various characters,” Tenorio said.